Bombing an Ideology: No One-Size-Fits-All Approach

by Richard Schoeberl

Stretching from Belgium to France, the United States to Iraq, the world has been blemished with terror attacks ranging from active shooter scenarios at entertainment venues, to plowing vehicles into crowded streets. Over the past decade, the United States has joined the global community of those exposed to the consequences and carnage associated with acts of terrorism.

Richard Schoeberl headshotAlthough many in the world view terrorism as a form of violence that only imposes psychological and physical impacts on the communities it touches, it is equally important to keep in mind the financial impact of terrorism – exceeding $180 billion globally over the past two years. The costs associated with terrorism are equivalent to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster cleanup in Japan, the same cost associated with the rebuild of Syria, and comparable to the annual value of cargo that passes through the Port of Long Beach – one of the world’s busiest seaports. In fact, to put it into perspective – the economic costs associated with terrorism exceed the GDPs of most countries, including: New Zealand, Uzbekistan, Ecuador, Luxemburg, and Jordon. Aside from the psychological impact, terrorism comes at a cost – both physical and fiscal.

Polls & Statistics

Trends associated with global acts of terrorism tend to present complex problems for experts analyzing the impact of imminent threats – and at no time in history has there been this much uncertainty. For analysts and U.S. citizens alike, fear and an increased level of uncertainty remain. According to a Gallup Poll taken shortly after the events of 9/11, nearly 60 percent of U.S. citizens felt vulnerable to terrorism and expressed a sense of fear that the United States would likely see another terror attack on domestic soil within weeks. That fear leveled off over the years, but the Gallup Poll later indicated at the end of 2015 that some 50 percent of U.S. citizens still feared that a terrorist attack could happen on domestic soil. Following the attacks in Brussels, Belgium, in March 2016, the same 50 percent of U.S. citizens polled feared a terror attack in the United States was imminent.

Regardless the level of fear, most concerning is the question, “Will an attack on the United States actually happen?” At no time in recent history, since the attacks of 9/11, has the United States faced a greater risk from Islamic extremists as it does right now – chiefly from those “radicalized” within the United States. The Islamic State’s (IS) paradigm shift – from preaching for people to come abroad and wage Jihad, to the most recent message of waging Jihad in the home country – has led to the influx of domestic attacks. Over the past two years, there have been over 160 IS-linked terror plots against Western targets.

The House Homeland Security Committee released the Committee’s December 2016 Terror Threat Snapshot, which forecasts increased threats for both the United States and Europe. During this past year, the IS carried out more than 60 attacks within the United States and Europe, attributing to over 700 critically injured and over 200 confirmed deaths. Furthermore, according to the Committee’s report, law enforcement has arrested more than 100 people in the United States in IS-linked investigations since 2014. In 2016 alone, 35 people were arrested in 18 separate states for IS-linked investigations.

Bullets, money and the American flag.

Feeding Fear & Uncertainty

Fear in the United States emerges from people who previously were not reachable before, but can now be easily reached through social media and “slick” propaganda. A recent magazine, Rumiyah (published by the IS), calls on would-be Jihadists to embrace sharp objects – or available weapons – to carry out lone-wolf operations wherever they are, suggesting they do not need to travel abroad to assist in the Jihad. The magazine, which is shared online in PDF form, suggests a “campaign of knife attacks.” The IS has additionally released a propaganda video instructing followers that they do not need sophisticated weaponry to launch an attack in support of the cause, but can utilize what is already available. In response to the recent report released by the Homeland Security Committee, Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) stated:

The attack last week at Ohio State University is further proof that our homeland remains in the crosshairs of Islamist terrorists. Groups like ISIS are radicalizing new operatives from within our borders, and just this week their new spokesman called for more inspired attacks by supporters “all over the world.” Make no mistake: we face a deadlier threat than ever before not only because our enemies have gotten savvier, but because we took the pressure off them. For eight years, the Obama Administration reluctantly played global whack-a-mole with terrorists rather than leaning into the fight with decisive leadership. Because of this, the Trump Administration will inherit a generational struggle that has only gotten longer. But rest assured, we will work closely with them to turn the table on these fanatics.

With no strategy in place to combat IS for the past several years, coupled with IS’s growth in popularity, there is no uncertainty that the organization will continue to remain a threat in 2017. Currently, some 34 Islamic extremist groups have pledged allegiance to the IS and the organization continues to grow in strength with franchises and auxiliary groups established in Yemen, Tunisia, Syria, Sudan, Russia, Philippines, Pakistan, Palestine, Nigeria, Lebanon, Libya, Jordon, Iraq, Indonesia, India, Egypt, Brazil, Bangladesh, Algeria, and Afghanistan. The West will continue to remain a vulnerable target for Islamic extremist groups in 2017 because of several factors:

  • Recidivism – In 2016, the current administration relocated 48 prisoners from Guantanamo Bay (GTMO) Detention Center in 2016. The director of national intelligence estimated that at least 30 percent of GTMO detainees are alleged to have resorted back to terrorist activities. There are currently only 59 prisoners remaining at GTMO.
  • Rehabilitation, the United States makes no attempt – The director of intelligence’s most recent assessment of recidivism revealed that one-third returned to terrorism. Several terrorist rehabilitative programs worldwide have been established with the hopes of reforming radical Islamic extremists. Several years following the attacks of 9/11, realizing the increasing popularity in Islamic extremism, several countries such as Iraq, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia all developed terrorist rehabilitation programs – or de-radicalization programs. These programs are deliberately designed to align behavior and thinking to a more nonradical and nonviolent ideal. They are comprised of several approaches directed at changing the extremist’s interpretation of Islam, distancing that person from the extremist group he or she was a part of, and most importantly reintegrating that person back into mainstream society. The country renowned as having the most complete and successful terrorism risk-reduction strategies is Saudi Arabia. The United States does not have one in place, nor did the GTMO Detention Center.
  • Refugee Flow – The United States cannot vet the number of refugees seeking entry into the country. In 2016, the Obama administration has immigrated close to 13,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. Intelligence officials have repetitively indicated that the United States lacks the reliable means to appropriately screen and vet the possible Syrian refugees seeking entry. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) acknowledged that, individuals with ties to terrorist groups in Syria attempting to gain entry to the United States through the U.S. refugee program.
  • Porous Borders – The question is, “How can we effectively secure 2,000 miles of the Southwest border?” In an area that stretches from California to Texas – encompassing more than 2,000 miles – the border between the United States and Mexico remains porous and unsecure. IS militants have raised awareness among its followers that entry into the United States through the Southwest border is a viable option.
  • Homegrown extremism – As the IS looks for means to enter the United States through traditional travel methods, southwest border smuggling routes, or refugee status, there is still concern with the marketing methods and propaganda that radicalize over the internet and recently prompted the attacks in Chattanooga (Tennessee), San Bernardino (California), Orlando (Florida), and Ohio State University. Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, watched IS propaganda online and pledged his allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There is no doubt that social media has revolutionized terrorism through its ability to radicalize those who were previously unreachable around the globe.

Contributing Factors for Radicalization

Terrorism and radicalization are no longer a law enforcement issue, as police can only do so much to protect an exposed society from violent extremism. Law enforcement can no longer be expected to work alone in addressing this threat. Officers simply cannot watch all people, all of the time – only some of the people, some of the time. As a society moving into 2017, people must now recognize and report signs of radicalization. Although religion plays a marginal role in the radicalization process, most people are driven by political or social change, grievances, personal dissatisfactions, and sense of adventure – which is clearly what Islamic extremists exploit.

These people adopt extreme social, religious, and political viewpoints, thus rejecting contemporary ideas. Other contributing factors involved in the radicalization process include: life-altering events, social networks, poverty, unemployment, and charismatic clerics – such as Anwar al-Awlaki. There really is no “simple” explanation behind radicalization, as different people follow different paths to get there. Regardless how someone is radicalized, it will be an increased threat to recognize going forward. The United States under new leadership will need to embrace a multitude of strategies to combat the ever-looming threats facing U.S. communities. The one-size fits all approach of “bombing an ideology” has not worked thus far.

Richard Schoeberl, a Ph.D. candidate in criminology and terrorism, has over 20 years of security and law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career ranging from supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to acting unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before his managerial duties at these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, international terrorism, terrorist financing, cyberterrorism, and organized drugs. He also was assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous articles on terrorism and security.